Faithful on the Frontline

© Didde Publishing Co.

July 10, 1950

Dear Aunt Tena,

This letter is being written on an LST in the middle of the ocean, in a large convoy. We have two submarines for protection, the Marines are to come in with us, the Navy will bombard the coast and the Air Corps will bomb the beach so we can make a landing in Korea. This is a big invasion and we are right in the middle of it.

You should see all the ships out here in the ocean loaded with soldiers and equipment. We are expecting plenty of resistance from the Russians.

We are well trained. All our trucks and jeeps are equipped for a beach landing. We have two Navy destroyers also. It hardly seems possible that we are actually going to war.

July 11, 1950

To Bishop Carroll

Tomorrow we are go to combat. The way the Catholic soldiers rally around the priest, is edifying.

Aug. 7,1950

To Mr. and Mrs. Fred Schugart

My dear Friends,

My hand is not steady as we have gone through a whole lot. We found this paper in a Korean house.

I pity the people. They had to run, taking what they could on their backs. The Reds were too strong for us. They kept pushing us back, as we tried to hold off for more help.

I have been on the front lines for eight days. We were machine-gunned, hit by mortars and tanks. Three times we escaped with our lives.

The night before last was the first I slept under a roof. The hard floor felt good.

Many thanks for your prayers and for the vigil lights. God has been good to me. Others have not been so fortunate.

There are many horrors in war. A fellow can stand only so much.

Aug. 8, 1950

Dear John and Tena,

We are right in the front lines of fighting. Three times now we were overpowered and had to run. They out-number us about 15-1, coming at us from all sides. But we will win this thing yet.

My, how nice it would be to sleep in a bed. These fox holes are anything but comfortable but they feel good when the enemy shells start bursting around us.

Aug. 11, 1950

Dear Elsie and all my friends:

You surprised me when you wrote that they televised some scenes in Korea. Where we are (right on the front lines) there is no such thing. So far, I saw some newspaper reporters and photographers. We have Army radio communication sets, but they do not reach very far.

Honestly, if we get a warm meal we think how nice it is. For a long time we have had no warm meals, just the C rations (in little tin cans) which we eat in fox holes. I am sitting in a fox hole right now with artillery shells whistling overhead.

There are millions of mosquitoes and we have to remain awake at night to be ready when the Reds come sneaking along in the darkness and bushes. It is a pleasure to sleep on the hard, rocky ground whenever a fellow gets a chance.

My clothes are wringing wet with sweat all day and the heat rash just about kills a fellow. The Reds got everything I had with me.

Three times I escaped with my life and that was all. I went through machinegun fire, bullets whistling all around; an 80-mm. tank shell missed my head about four feet, it blew off my steel helmet. The prayers of loved ones helped me escape.

I have seen soldiers with both legs blown off; one had the top of his head completely blown off. He did not know what hit him.

This fighting is nerve-wracking. Many of my soldiers crack up — they go insane and scream like mad men. It seems like a dream. I don’t know if I will live through the day or night. We are close to heaven but really we are more like in hell.

Aug 12,1950

The following letter was written on a large (12x19 inch) crude sheet of rough stationery, something like wall paper.

My dear Bishop Carroll:

Please excuse the crudeness of this letter. Yesterday I found this paper and ink in one of the abandoned houses of the Koreans.

Many thanks for your kindness and remembrance in prayers. It must be the prayers of others which have saved me so far.

Three times we have been trapped by the Reds and have had to flee for our lives.

I lost everything I had except what I carried on my person.

I lost my jeep and trailer with all my equipment. My assistant was shot and is now in the hospital. The Protestant chaplain who was working beside me, was hit by a mortar shell and lost part of his leg.

I was the only one

who escaped unscathed.

I got another Mass kit so I can say Mass when conditions permit. Lost all my records so I will have to guess about what to report. In July I said Mass every Sunday except one (when I had no Mass kit), attendance about 200. I prepared soldiers in Confession and Holy Communion, I guess between 300 and 400 times. I administered Extreme Unction many times.

Most of my Catholic soldiers are well prepared. I baptized two boys before battle and prepared about six or eight for their First Confession and Holy Communion. I carry the Holy Oils and the Blessed Sacrament with me at all times.

For nearly two weeks we were in battle, with no rest. Many of my soldiers suffered heat exhaustion and sun stroke in this awful heat and climbing mountains.. We are on the front lines but the Reds have not tried to advance for several days. That gives us a little much-needed rest.

We killed thousands.They outnumber us about 15-1 (we were told). Now since we have received more help, they outnumber us about 3-1. If that is the case, we should give them a good licking.

War is terrible! I feel sorry for the Korean people who have to leave their homes. As the Reds approach, nearly everything is destroyed — homes, lives and food. I hope these people can return in time to harvest their rice so they have some food for winter.

I am glad to be with the soldiers in time of need. So far, I have been right on the front lines giving absolution and Extreme Unction to the dying. I had no chance to change clothes and my uniform got all bloody. I’ve got a clean one now and I hope it will not be stained with blood.

Aug. 31, 1950

Most Reverend and dear Bishop:

We have been on the front lines all through August, with very little rest and constant nervous strain. In our regiment we have 40 killed and 43 missing in action (most probably dead, too, because Reds are reported to have killed most of the prisoners taken).

This is confidential. My report for Aug.: 12 Sunday Masses, 246 attended; 15 weekday Masses, 118; 13 Rosary devotions, 56; Holy Communions, 176, Last Sacraments, 2.

The Advance Register does not reach me anymore, but it is surprising the way letters come in for the soldiers, who are always anxious to hear from home.

Aug. 31,1950

Dear Dad and Mom,

I had no chance to write last week. We have been in the front lines all the time but the Reds did not bother us much. Some of the prisoners said they were trying to attack the other units.

I am sending you the pictures which Eugene sent because I am afraid they will get ruined. When it rains, everything gets wet.

I am sending you a paper Korean flag which we found in a school house. I guess the children made it.

I am writing this letter in a rice paddy. Airplanes are flying around and our big guns are firing. They make a fellow jump every time they go off.

I have been getting a lot of mail. Don’t know if I can answer it all. You people must be all excited over this war. It seems odd to see the new soldiers coming

in here, fresh from the States.

They left the U.S.A. only 10 days ago. Their clothes are nice and clean, whereas we fellows are all dirty and many have not shaved because they had nothing to shave with and no place to shave and little time.

We lost so much stuff because we were fighting hard, then had to fight our way out of a trap. But so far the Reds were not good enough to get us, and now with much more help from the U.S.A., England, the Philippines, Australia, etc., we surely should whip them.

We had to laugh about the Marines. They came over here with a lot of publicity and we were glad to know they were here. They went in with a big push and it looked like they were set on giving the Reds a good licking, but the Reds did the same to them as they did to us — got them in a trap.

Sept. 25, 1950

Sanjon, Korea

Dear Albert, Pauline, and family: (Klenda family of Pilsen)

My, how war does ruin things! You should see these towns (I ran out of ink so must proceed with pencil). The heavy artillery and the bombs blow everything to pieces. Bridges are blown up, roads are mined. The enemy went through the houses and took what they wanted. They upset what was left so that everything is one big mess.

We have the Reds on the run. All along the road and fields and on the mountains and hills we find their unburied dead. They had to run so fast they left guns and ammunition.

Our soldiers are quite happy now. We had an awful time for a while when we had to back up.

We have soldiers who were in the last war in Germany, others were in the Pacific. They told me this war in Korea is the toughest.

I thank you for all the prayers, etc. My boys need them worse than I do, for some way or another I have not been hit, although we were in some tough spots with bullets whistling past our heads. A fellow’s nerves take an awful strain and a fellow surely can pray when these big shells explode around the area. It is no fun.

Oct. 2, 1950

Ansung, Korea

Dear Aunt Tena,

I did not get any mail for 10 days, no food for two days, one day with no water supply except rain which we caught in our slickers.

The Reds are on the run and we are hot after them. By the time you get this letter the war may be over.

Oct. 2, 1950

Most Reverend and dear Bishop:

Thank you very much for your kind letter sent last month. It took some time to reach us as we had been trapped by the Reds and could not get any mail or anything else. This was the fourth time we were trapped, and the first time I had no foxhole to run to.

With these high-powered shells exploding on all sides, one trembles and prays that none will land nearby. When a man is hit, he screams for help or the others near him scream for him if he is unconscious. The whole experience is nerve-wracking.

We have broken over the Red lines and have advanced over a hundred miles. We just wonder if the war is nearly over.

During this awful conflict I was impressed with the way most of the soldiers were prepared spiritually. I hope that all of them who lost their lives have found a merciful Judge.

I wish to thank you and all the good people who have been sending prayers heavenward for us in Korea. Something saved us besides our efforts, for many of us are convinced we are living only on borrowed time.

Oct. 4, 1950

Most Reverend and dear Bishop:

I want to write you about my latest experience at Ansun (City) Korea.

We came into Ansung last Wednesday afternoon and completely surprised the town. The Communists were not expecting us at all. Our jeeps drove up to the City Hall and the Communists started jumping out the windows in hasty flight. We caught most of them.

At the police station the Reds were just eating their noon meal. They jumped up, left their rice on the platters, and ran, but we got many of them, too. Some of them were wounded, some killed, as they tried to escape. Joe Stalin’s picture and the Korean Communist leader’s picture were side by side over the main entrances to the public buildings. Also, they had many posters around depicting the barbarous United States and the atrocities we commit.

One of our wounded Red prisoners told our interpreter that they expected us to cut off their noses and ears when we captured them. The Russian Reds had told them that is what we do.

As soon as we had the town in hand and the shooting ceased, I started to look around.

I saw a building with a red cross on it, a hospital. I went there and was met at the door by two nurses and a doctor. None of them could speak English and I could not speak Korean. I pointed to the white cross on my steel helmet and tried to tell them I was a Catholic Chaplain. I made the sign of the cross and they showed me their blessed medals and rosaries. I took out my confession stole, which I carry with the Blessed Sacrament and with the holy oils, and they kissed it reverently. They knew I was a priest, pointed to the north, and tried to tell me where the Catholic Church was. The nurses told our Korean interpreter that they would show us the Catholic Church.

Together we made our way through narrow lanes between mud houses until finally we reached the Church compound. It was littered with all kinds of debris. We went into the Church. The altars were intact, but all paintings, statues, and crosses were destroyed.

I told my interpreter to tell the people I was a Catholic priest — they gave me the famous oriental bow of the head (a bow which nearly touches the ground).

At 9 on Thursday the people assembled in their church which was now a very clean and respectable building. The Reds did not destroy it, intending to use it for their own purposes.

They would not permit the people to go to church. They said they do not believe in God and would not let any of their people worship God.

These people lost their two Korean priests and three Korean Sisters on July 5. I asked where they were. The people did not know.

The people celebrated that Mass on Thursday with great awe. It was the first time they saw an American chaplain and the first Mass in their church since the godless Reds took over this community. Two Korean boys served and their Latin was perfect.

As I said the prayers at the foot of the altar I could not help but think I could not speak the language of these people nor could they speak mine, but at the altar we had a common language.I imagine the people felt the same way.

Some of my soldiers were at Mass and went to Holy Communion. The people could see very easily the difference between the United States soldiers and the godless Reds who closed their church.

I arranged to have Father Maguire of Division Artillery to say the Sunday Mass as I had to go up into the hills to say Mass for my soldiers.

Father Maguire said the Mass and later told me that this was the most impressive Mass he ever had in his whole Army experience. The church was packed with Catholic Koreans and American soldiers.

After Mass the soldiers gave a donation to the community of some 60,000 won (Korean) (about $30 in American money).

The Catholic people at Ansung told me: ‘Now we have a Father again.’ I told them that I would not be here very long as we would be moving ahead to a different place. And today we are moving. That is the life of a chaplain. It has its rough days when a person is face to face with death, and it has its days of tenderness and love as we found at Ansung City, Korea.

May God bless you and the whole Diocese.

Oct. 12, 1950

Dear Dad and Mom,

We are still well and alive and hoping the war will be over before long. The Reds are moving back. We are right on the 38th parallel north and a little west of Seoul.

I see Bishop Carroll put my letter in the paper and even the Record Review had it. I better be careful or the sheriff will be looking for me.

Well, we soldiers are thankful for all your prayers and Masses. Somebody must be praying hard for us.

No bullet got me yet although my pipe got wrecked and the day before yesterday a machine gunner sprayed us with bullets but we jumped into the ditch too quickly.

May God bless you and keep you in good health.

One of the minor casualties of the Korean War was Chaplain Kapaun’s pipe, his inseparable companion in the thick of battle. He had to give up smoking for a short time, when the bullet of a North Korean sniper demolished the stem of his favorite briar. Escaping unhurt, he quit smoking only long enough to whittle a new stem from Korean bamboo. In another battle his pipe was again knocked out of his mouth.

In the wild and hellish confusion of attacking and counter-attacking that preceded Father’s capture, no one observer could give an accurate or complete account. Let the boys who shared that hell tell the story. Their accounts may overlap. There is repetition. There is even apparent contradiction. Fighting for their lives, they could hardly be expected to keep a detailed record. From these brave men the reader will get a picture of Chaplain Kapaun, and definite, spine-tingling proof of his daring and devotion.

 

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